Pysanky: the art of making Ukrainian Easter eggs

23 Photos

“It all started when there were pagan gods and the rite-of-spring,” Halyna Mudryj explained in her introduction of pysanky -decorated Ukrainian eggs- to her classes this spring at the Creative Alliance. Although now associated with Easter, 2000 years ago, pysanky were decorated as offerings to pagan gods, especially the sun god, Dazhboh, considered the giver of life. Used as talismans for bringing good fortune and keeping evil at bay, eggs were also symbols of life and rebirth, says Mudryj (pronounced “muud-ree”). As the Ukraine region became Christianized in 988 A.D., pagan pictures of nature such as animals, water and the sun took on new meaning and made room for crosses and other Christian symbols on the eggs. For example waves, which formerly represented the god of water, now represented “Christ walking on water,” she says.

The word “pysanky” comes from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty” which means “to write.” Beeswax mixed with soot and melted in a stylus is used to “write” or make designs and symbols on the egg. Alternating between drawing with wax, the egg is dipped in a series of colors beginning with the lightest to darkest. Whatever color is under the wax, remains that color. Once the last dark color is used, the wax is then melted over a flame and wiped away to reveal the colorful design underneath.

Born in England and raised in Baltimore, Halyna (pronounced “Hah-lynn-ah”) Mudryj describes herself as a “world citizen.” But the Ukrainian culture and customs have taken root within her. Having learned the art from her mother, she has been decorating eggs “longer than I’ve been reading or writing…” and estimates she’s decorated “way over a thousand eggs.” She has a stylus her grandfather made by using the “metal tips that held shoelaces together.”

Mudryj, who graduated from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 1979, has decorated ovals of all sizes, from finch to ostrich eggs, which can take close to 80 hours to complete. When finished, she uses polyurethane, which gives the egg its sheen. While making a pysanka for someone, Mudryj thinks of the person and wishes them whatever they may need. “Consider what you’re really doing with the egg is a prayer,” she says.

Halyna Mudryj will be at the Creative Alliance for the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival in June.